Palestinian villagers in Bil’in have successfully resisted Israeli plans to confiscate land for construction of their so-called ‘security barrier.’
Bil’in is no exception. With almost 2,000 inhabitants, it is situated some six miles west of the major city of Ramallah, where one finds the headquarters of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, or PA. The actual Bil’in housing area is located only two miles east of the ceasefire line of 1949, the so called Green Line, and the farmlands of the village borders this line. While walking on these farmlands one can sense how the rapidly growing ultra-modern Israeli city moves closer towards Bil’in.
Beyond the Israeli Wall, one can see how parts of occupied West Bank land have been used to build the new Israeli settlement Modi’in Illit. Bil’in itself is under the legislation of the Oslo Accord of 1995 (Oslo II), called “area B.” This implies that Bil’in is in the area under PA civil rule, but under Israeli security control.
This is a complicated construct, arbitrary to say the least, and de facto it is Israeli military rule that is practiced in the everyday towards the villagers. If the Bil’in villagers experience injustice from Israeli occupation forces, they cannot send a petition to any Israeli civil court due to this area B status. Instead they have to file a complaint to the Civil Administration, i.e. the military occupation administration, a place where it is nearly impossible to win a case. Sending a petition to the PA is pointless since they have few possibilities to successfully address security matters vis-a-vis the Israelis.
The Israeli security barrier seen as an Apartheid wall
During the most violent phase of the Al-Aqsa intifada in 2002, the Israeli government decided to build a “security barrier” around the West Bank. Officially, Israel explained that the decision was made in order to protect Israeli civilians from further Palestinian suicide attacks coming from the West Bank.
The barrier is over 435 miles long, although the Green Line is only about 200 miles, indicating that the barrier is carving in and around areas of the West Bank proper. This has resulted in international as well as domestic condemnation, including from the International Court of Justice.
Importantly, huge problems have emerged for the many Palestinian villages whose mobility dramatically decreased. The initial Israeli plan was also to build the wall through the farmlands of Bil’in, directly affecting the villagers’ livelihoods and strangling the economic output from agriculture. Palestinians perceive the wall as an attempt to divide villagers from each other, preventing them from reaching their lands, as well as preparing the ground for further Israeli settlement expansions.
When the plans for the wall construction became public, the Bil’in villagers realized that the wall would not always follow the route of the Green Line, but be on its eastern side, thereby surrounding, cutting and splitting several Palestinian villages from their farmland areas. In Bil’in, some 60 percent of the farmland would no longer be accessible due the wall. Obviously, the villagers felt that this was unjust and started to plan and mobilize.
Overall, the wall has caused a grassroots mobilization in the affected villages in the West Bank, neither initiated by the Palestinian political elites nor the PA. A civil resistance campaign was soon born.
The Bil’in civil resistance campaign
The Bil’in villagers escalated an already existing sumud strategy, a widespread Palestinian strategy of steadfastness to stay in the land, defend the land, and not lose their livelihood capacity. Their persistent nonviolent actions led to a reputation as them being the “Palestinian Gandhis.” But how did the Bil’in resistance campaign achieve a partial success despite the highly asymmetrical power differences between Israel and the occupied villagers?
The Bil’in campaign began with planning and forming popular committees. The committees worked for the continued control and ownership of all their historical farmlands, resulting in unusual, innovative ways of struggle, occasionally even theatrical ones.
In February 2005, the campaign began with its first public protests. A key behind the campaign’s success was the idea to reframe the conflict issue, avoiding simply relating it to the overarching Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, instead relating it to the human side of it — the suffering, the injustice of farmers being unable to reach their farmlands. This fostered empathy for the villagers among a broader Israeli public. The struggle is still ongoing, although in 2007, Israel’s High Court decided that the wall must be re-routed away from Bil’in farm land. Evidently, this was a partial success.
Rallies occurred in several other villages around the West Bank where Palestinians would be affected by the construction work. These activities formed a larger unarmed resistance campaign against the wall, with Palestinians demanding access to their lands and houses, as well as to a general right of mobility. Cooperation and solidarity between the affected villages developed, becoming a significant unity factor.
As one of the interviewed activists explained: “The campaign was linked to the discourses of democratic principles and human rights. It was not framed in the typical Israeli versus Palestinian conflict framework.” In doing so, attention on and understanding for the villages’ situation increased in the West, even within Israeli society.
Bil’in was also inspired by many other villages’ campaigns, particularly the success of Budrus, which retained 95 percent of its farmland following a civil resistance campaign. In 2004, the Israeli Supreme Court took a decision in favor of Budrus. Some Bil’in activists also participated in the Budrus campaign, gaining important insights and experiences from their successful campaign, which they subsequently used in their own village.
During the first weeks of February 2005, daily protests took place, although after some time they occurred weekly, following Friday prayers in the mosque. With time, more and more villagers joined these protests, which by then received increased attention in both Israel and Palestine, as well as internationally.
This resulted in broader cooperation. Just as Bil’in inhabitants had participated in the struggles of other Palestinian villagers, now inhabitants from other Palestinian villages joined the Bil’in protests.
At this stage, when regular protests were established, the village formed the Bil’in Popular Committee to Resist the Wall and Settlement, a community-based and democratic organization of the campaign, which also coordinated with other villages’ committees. The popular committee was aware that armed tactics would increase Israeli’s legitimization of an armed response to the protesters. Hence, from the campaign’s outset, the villagers banned the use of weapons, including stone throwing and Molotov cocktails.
As much as villagers followed a nonviolent strategy, emotions sometimes could not hold back some of the youth who spontaneously threw stones in situations when the Israelis intensively had fired tear gas at the protesters. As soon as these rare incidents occurred, the villagers intervened and stopped the young boys.
Another important issue the committee dealt with was how to deal with Israeli activists who wanted to join the campaign. Many feared the Israelis were spying on them. The Bil’in demonstrators had reasons to be cautious; on previous occasions, Israeli secret agents participated in the demonstrations, then suddenly arrested some of the protesters to create confusion and fear.
In the end, around 50 Israelis were contacted, who were constantly ready to join in. This developed into a close relationship which greatly impacted the power asymmetry. However, both sides agreed that the campaign had to be Palestinian-led. The Israeli activists played an important role, since they had more access and opportunities to create greater attention both inside Israel, as well as internationally. Additionally, Israeli soldiers were more cautious with using rubber bullets and live ammunition against the protesters when Israelis were among them.
Once the campaign had become well-known — even famous to an extent — and had eventually won the Israeli High Court case, many internationals arrived, including dignitaries. Over time, it shaped a form of “solidarity tourism.” Also, some PA politicians visited. Crucially, the internationals’ role must be seen as providing a support group, rather than being a decisive factor in Bil’in’s success. Meanwhile, Israeli participants were significant for ensuring that the case entered the Israeli civil court.
It was a well organized campaign, with different popular committee members adopting different roles. For example, one member was the primary contact for local news media, another would facilitate and host international supporters, a third would focus on legal issues and work with Israeli attorneys, and so on. Although occasional use of minor violence did happen, people generally saw the importance of maintaining a nonviolent strategy.
Simultaneously, various innovative forms of resistance developed, accomodating to Israelis’ responses to Palestinian civil resistance. Though Bil’in villagers used a broad range of resistance tactics, they had to constantly find new ways of acting, since the Israelis responded to these change. The campaign’s reputation gave the villagers status, with the people gaining a certain degree of pride. In particular, those injured by Israeli soldiers’ beatings, rubber bullets or tear gas canisters felt a certain dignity and pride in having stood up to the overwhelming military might of the Israeli Defense Forces.
Given the Israeli military occupation’s constant presence, it has become common among Palestinian civilians to apply various strategies of avoidance resistance. Bil’in residents had to find ways to sidestep the Israeli forces’ constant presence and dominance, who applied curfews, checkpoints and sudden day and night raids with arrests of Palestinian activists.
Furthermore, various means of escaping dependence on the Israeli administration had to be developed, for permissions for daily survival, physical mobility and economic activity. Avoidance resistance strategies were performed both individually and collectively. Through such broad-based participation, they also built their resilience capacity. Every time the Israelis arrested a Popular Committee member, somebody would always take over their role and, in this manner, they avoided a collapse of the campaign. Essentially, the committee’s survival was not dependent on any key person.
Additionally, there was a whole repertoire of power breaking resistance tactics. Over 130 demonstrations were held until success was partly achieved. The weekly demonstrations turned the village’s everyday life into one of non-cooperative resistance. The creativity in these demonstrations included using a range of symbols, such as flags and symbolic colors, painted on themselves or their clothes.
They also found innovative themes for their weekly protests. The protesters defied the military’s “red-lines”established on Bil’in land. Occasionally, the resisters built their own blockades to stop bulldozers uprooting olive trees and construction of the Israeli Wall, thereby hindering the Israelis’ ability to reach the protesters. A notable strategy was when Israeli activists and Palestinian women walked in front of demonstrators, keeping the men at the back. Since men were typically targets of Israeli repression, this constituted a form of “protection.” Together with foreigners and Israelis, they would sometimes chain themselves to the fence protecting the wall building area, or to their olive trees to prevent them being uprooted.
The activists also wrote letters to the Israeli authorities, protesting and asking for justification of Israeli decisions. By including an Israeli in their High Court petition, the resisters were able to get their case tested by the Israeli civil court system. Such joint efforts thus became crucial for the successful outcome. Moreover, the issue was framed as a justice issue, and succeeded in becoming aired and discussed on Israeli television.
Israeli settlers often conducted night raids and set many of Bil’in’s olive trees on fire. Confrontations with the settlers could sometimes be very violent, with settlers mistreating and severely beating activists. At one point, the villagers attempted to prevent the establishment of new Israeli “outposts” — that is, initiations of new settlements.
Although such outposts are illegal according to Israeli authorities, it is still important for the Palestinians to stop the settlers from creating them, since they create new “facts on the ground” and, over time, often gain legal approval too.
Some of the campaign’s activities could be identified as constructive resistance, where alternative structures are built, and various new ideas devised, due to joint cooperation with external actors, particularly Israelis. At one point, the villagers built a Palestinian outpost, similar to the Israeli settlers’ methods. Israeli authorities wasted no time in destroying the Palestinian outpost. When the Bil’in villagers enquired why it was instantly destroyed unlike Israeli settler outposts, they received an answer that the outpost did not follow regulations.
In response, the Bil’in villagers and their Israeli supporters quickly built a second outpost, surprising the Israeli authorities by placing the house on the same spot as the first outpost. The Israelis did not destroy it this time, with the outpost becoming the Bil’in Center for the Joint Struggle for Peace. The Israeli High Court prevented the Israeli Defense Forces from destroying the outpost, which subsequently became a training and meeting center for activists from all sides.
From success to an uncertain future
The Bil’in case offers significnat insights regarding the causes of success for resistance campaigns. Among others, women and men, old and young, leaders and villagers, as well as Israeli activists, all participated in the various resistance activities. This is important, since participation of almost all villagers across all social categories increases the struggle’s legitimacy, while challenging hierarchies and political stereotypes. This bottom-up grassroots resistance also marginalizes party politics. Further, each group can contribute in different ways due to its distinct role.
Although, the Bil’in case’s relative success has led to international attention, we must recognize that most external support only came after the Israeli court had delivered its judgement. Ultimately, the villagers’ resistance achieved their objectives without international support. However, Israeli and international media reporting on this particular Bil’in activism — in which Palestinians and Israelis participated together — contributed significantly to framing the issue as a justice issue, instead of merely a conflict issue between Israelis and Palestinians. Whether increased internationalization and arrival of external activists strengthened the continued resistance remains to be assessed.
Bil’in villagers’ own creativity and resilience contributed much to their own partial success, meaning they became a role model for other villages through a diffusion effect. However, the court decision has not been fully implemented, while remaining parcels of land are still yet to receive protection from the High Court. Consequently, the village continues its resistance into a uncertain future, struggling to regain control of its remaining farmlands.